Do you remember the first time you actually got on the Internet? That very first time that you connected to the web? Maybe you were in high school or college; maybe you were even in middle school. Maybe you still get shivers when you hear the sounds of a dial-up modem screeching and buzzing with the anticipation of a connection to a bigger world of information. In my house, I may have used cling wrap to wrap around the phone to keep it from being picked up and kicking me offline. Whatever your first experience might have been, getting online was magical. With the click of a button (and given the time for the page to actually load), suddenly an amazing amount of information was available.
As I think about those experiences and my own children, I realize the Internet isn’t magic to them, it just is. They don’t remember a time when I actually had to make a phone call to get to the Internet. They’ve never had the experience of clicking on a link, going and getting a sandwich, and coming back to find a page still not completely loaded. Since they were born, I’ve always had the Internet in my pocket. For them, technology and the Internet is just part of life and part of their daily routines. They’re not alone: kids of all ages have access to more information than my entire college library held. It’s an amazing time.
As amazing as it is, it’s also a hard time. We as educators are still struggling to see where technology fits into the classroom. We must still find time to teach kids how to read and write. Many of these kids struggle to read on grade level, and technology can be a distraction if not structured appropriately. However, technology also is not a reward for good behavior. It’s not a reward for finishing work early, and it’s not a reward or relegated to those days that we just need to occupy kids. Technology is all around us and is a part of our everyday lives, not just when we’ve done a good job at work and need a reward when we get home. It’s a natural extension of daily life, and we have to find authentic ways to pull that into the classroom. When we reward kids by letting them use technology, what message are we sending? Is it the message we want to send? Do we want them to see that their use of technology cannot allow them to create and learn, or is our message that technology is for fun, after you’ve finished your “real” work?
Being literate in the digital age doesn’t mean only that we are able to read and write. It means that we can navigate and negotiate information, it means we can have experiences beyond those in the classroom, and it means that we can create new and unique opportunities for learning and understanding. It also means that we have to embrace technology as part of learning instead of as a reward or time killer.
I understand that it’s easier said than done when you’re working with a room full of kids who, by nature, are impulsive and easily distracted. In some cases, kids know more about how an app or a website works than adults. It takes confidence and trust to loosen those reins and not be the expert in the room. However, at this point in time, technology can no longer be optional. Think for a moment about your own lives and the role technology plays. If you’re in need of a specific fact, how do you find it? Chances are it’s the web (either on your phone or on another computing device). When you write something for work, do you typically write longhand or do you type? Do you keep a paper calendar or rely on an app? How do you connect with others? Are you on a social network like Facebook or Twitter? Do you send text messages? There are many questions that could be asked and your answers will vary, but it’s rare to find someone whose life doesn’t rely in some way on technology and, more specifically, the Internet.
So if technology is embedded in meaningful ways in our own lives, how can we give age-appropriate experiences for our students so that they see that technology isn’t just for playing games and watching Netflix? It’s also not only for word processing and research. It’s for connecting to other people and ideas, it’s for creating something new and interesting, and it’s for helping us manage the amazing amount of information that bombards us on a daily basis. It helps us manage our lives and learn about the world around us. Does it entertain us? Of course. Is it appropriate in every situation? Of course not. However, more often than not, technology can empower students to think and learn beyond what we even thought was possible.
Tips for teachers:
- Don’t try to be the expert. Every day another new app or tool comes out. You’ll never keep up. Just figure out the capabilities of the ones you know will work, and if a student has found something new, let them try it as long as it meets your learning goals.
- If a student brings in a new tool that you’ve never seen, learn from them. Ask them to teach you how it works and what it does. Give them the opportunity to verbalize and showcase their own knowledge and make connections to what you’re doing in class.
- Use technology as a part of your instruction. Your kids can learn a lot watching you navigate a computer. When something doesn’t seem to work, talk through how you troubleshoot the problem and listen to your students. They may just have a solution or know what to do to get past it. This is a great time to show them that even adults have to learn persistence.
- Don’t worry about breaking the Internet. So much of what we do now is on the web. Regardless of what someone might say, you’re not going to break the web. If something doesn’t seem to be working right, reload that page and start again. Be adventurous; that’s probably one of the reasons you got into teaching in the first place.
- Teach students procedures around the use of technology just as you would as you build your classroom community. Show them how to respect the devices that you have in your classroom by giving guidelines about how to carry, store, charge, and manage whatever technology is available.
- Give yourself a break but show persistence. If something doesn’t work as you expected, that’s okay; try again tomorrow. Nothing is perfect. Just don’t give up.
Technology is ever changing and has firmly embedded itself in our everyday lives. It’s an important part of what we do and how we live our lives. Consider what you want your students to create, make, learn, and experience. Where does technology fit? Make it authentic and meaningful, and most important, don't make it a reward.